It’s been a slow morning. I’m lounging in a pile of pillows, putting product in my damp hair, and talking with my friend on the phone. I have a cup of tea on my nightstand and a plate with breakfast crumbs teetering there as well. My feet are still sore from a busy day prior. They’re poking out from beneath the comforter, and I’m rotating them at the ankles to relieve the discomfort. I notice that one ankle is slightly swollen. One could even say “barely.” My stomach lurches. I should stand up, I think, find something to do. Instead, I snatch away the blanket for a closer inspection. I flex my feet and hold them parallel. I can’t unsee it. I say goodbye to my friend. My tone is terse, my heart rate has picked up, and sweat is gathering around my hairline. It’s far too hot in here, I think.
I call Andy into the room. “My ankle is swollen. I can’t look at it.”
He examines my feet. “Which foot?” he asks. They are in his lap now.
“The left one,” I snap, irritated, and I jab at the offending area with my finger to demonstrate. The hysteria is mounting. “I have a blood clot.”
“You don’t have a blood clot.”
“But, my ankle is swollen. I never get swollen ankles! Oh my God. I’m going to be one of those old ladies with cankles…” I’ve arrived at middle age. All the evidence is there. The teenage children, the excess weight, and now the cankle. Or blood clot. Jesus, it’s definitely a blood clot.
This is a familiar fear. It tags along every road trip, and for at least a month of each pregnancy. I’ve hoisted my bump into several emergency departments and visited doctors in faraway towns in the wee hours while my family slept. I’ve hobbled around a popular amusement park hoping only to make it back to the campsite, so I could more easily sneak away. I’ve had multiple ultrasounds, excessive bloodwork, and I’ve even allowed concerned doctors to radiate the shit out of my chest. Twice.
But this time it seems legitimate (it always does). I schedule an appointment with my beloved Dr.R. He’s seen me work myself into a WebMD frenzy on multiple occasions and he’s pretty good at making the right call. My appointment is at one thirty. By the time I arrive in his office my whole left foot is tingling. Dr. R checks me over and measures my ankles. He confirms that the left one is swollen, but reassures me that it is likely due to excess salt intake over the holidays. He nonetheless fills out the order for an ultrasound, and requests the results “STAT.” He knows what happens if I am left to wonder.
The appointment is scheduled for three thirty, and I limp through the automatic doors. I wad up my clothing and shove it into my bag, don a paper sheet, and allow the tech to spread cold jelly over my leg. I study her face as she takes measurements. She hovers too long on a spot just a few inches above my knee then leaves the room to speak with the radiologist as I wait to be advised of my imminent demise. Cleo makes balloons out of latex gloves and Huey becomes preoccupied with my lack of pants before the tech reappears with Sponge Bob stickers and a reassuring smile. I leave the exam room feeling silly, and without a limp. The pain and tingling have vanished and I am once again befuddled by the ways that our brains can trick our bodies. I receive a phone call within the hour. The results are negative for Deep Vein Thrombosis.
There is whole a population of psychiatrists who have designated hypochondria a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my experience, they are almost identical. On any unremarkable Tuesday, a fearful thought might arrive in my consciousness and consume my thinking. I will spend the ensuing days and weeks on a quest to eliminate doubt, only to be reminded that nothing is ever quite reassuring enough. There is no website, test, doctor, or human who can promise I do not have rogue cancer cells setting up shop my lymphatic system, or that I won’t die, suddenly, of a heart attack. We are not promised tomorrow, and for hypochondriacs this is an unacceptable truth.
It’s easy to make fun of hypochondriacs because our experiences are not unfunny! Even when the situation seems dire I am often able to laugh at myself. I once refused to look at my left pinky toe for over a month. Toe cancer. Did you know Bob Marley died from toe cancer? I have moles on my body that I don’t dare look at. I once had an ill-informed doctor recommend that I measure these moles, take photos of them even. Instead, each September I receive a text reminder from my dermatologist to schedule my annual appointment. I do this promptly and then fret for the two-week interim as the threat of melanoma grows ever bigger in my mind. I do NOT perform self-breast exams. God knows I’d find more lumps than you’d expect to find in a Christmas custard gone awry.
I’m not supposed to google. But this is the compulsion. As are the return trips to the doctor for second and third opinions, and the relentless testing required to keep the anxiety at a tolerable level. I have endured scopes and swabs, x-rays, and obscure blood tests. I have had more EKGs than I care to count and twice ran on a treadmill, braless, in an open front bib. You’ll never guess; my heart is fine. I read and re-read “How Not to Die” by Michael Gregor, MD. I played the audiobook in the car. Then I went vegan for two years.
Still, I wake up each night to stark darkness and the sound of my own heart, and my only thought is that someday I will die. It’s not a risk to mediate or a theory to ponder, but a fact, as cold and hard as they come. Maybe it’s today and I will choke on a piece of home-baked stollen. Or perhaps, in ten years, I will die in a car accident backing out of my driveway in my new-fangled automated vehicle. They’ll talk about it on NPR. More likely I’ll die from a preventable cancer because I didn’t measure my moles.
These thoughts haunt us all, though some more thoroughly than others. There are Buddha-like individuals out there who have accepted the inevitability of their death and it propels them to live a more vibrant life. This has to be the goal, doesn’t it? There are people out there working to halt death, but they’ve missed the point. When I stop to think about it (and believe me I do), life without death would be devoid of meaning. What better reason to wake up and to love your little family, to notice the color of the sky or the snow on your face than that you have a finite number of days to do so? What better reason to live?